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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Friday outlined what he called four “pillars” of a strategy to end this year’s rash of military suicides.
Panetta, speaking in Washington to the annual Defense Department and Department of Veterans Affairs suicide prevention conference, said there were “no easy answers, no simple solutions, no quick fixes” to the problem of suicide.
“But that doesn't mean we can't do more to prevent it from happening,” he said in prepared remarks.
The annual conference, which ended Friday, took place as the military saw suicides averaging roughly one per day over the first half of 2012 -- a figure roughly double the number of Americans killed in Afghanistan over the same period.
The suicide rate is also the highest in a decade, and follows a two-year period during which it appeared to level off, according to the Defense Department numbers.
Panetta gave the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan their due for having a role in suicides, remarking on the stresses that come from repeated deployments over the past decade and sustained exposure to combat, and wounds that include traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.
But he pointed out that more than half of military suicides are troops who never deployed, making the case that there is “a broader societal issue” playing a role.
“From substance abuse to financial distress and relationship problems, the risk factors for suicide also reflect problems in general society,” Panetta said. “The risk factors … will endure beyond the wars. For that reason, we must develop an enduring suicide prevention strategy.”
Panetta identified the four pillars of his program for tackling suicide as leadership; improving health care quality and access; elevating mental fitness to the importance of physical fitness; and increasing research into suicide prevention.
“Like almost every issue in our military, progress on suicide prevention depends on leadership,” he said. “I have made clear that this issue is first and foremost a leadership responsibility.” Everyone in authority, from commanders to junior officers and non-commissioned officers, he said, must be more aggressive in encouraging their subordinates to get help when needed.
Leaders also have to take responsibility for ensuring that those who do seek help are not subjected to hazing, belittling or in any way ostracized, he said. This is critical for ending the stigma often attached to mental health issues, he said.
“A second pillar of our suicide prevention strategy is improving the quality of behavioral health care and expanding access to that care,” Panetta said. While the active-duty troops have access to more than 9,000 mental health care professionals -- a 35 percent increase since 2009 -- National Guard and Reserve troops do not always have ready access, according to Panetta.
But he said DoD is making progress in that area through its Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program which links the reservists and their families to local health care services before, during, and after deployments.
“Going forward, I want to make sure that all servicemembers and their family members have the quality mental and behavioral health care that they need,” he said.
It’s also critical that troops get the training and coping skills they need to bounce back from stress, Panetta said.
“All the services are working to elevate mental fitness to the same level of importance that DoD has always placed on physical fitness,” he said.
The last pillar is boosting research into suicide prevention, something that requires a government-private sector partnership.
“All of us recognize that there is still far too much that we don't know about the causes of suicide, the effectiveness of particular suicide prevention programs, and the linkages between psychological health and traumatic brain injury,” Panetta said.
He said DoD and the VA already are developing an information repository that should improve analysis of suicides and attempted suicides and spot trends that will help troops’ buddies, co-workers and families recognize problem signs.
“The department is also working to fundamentally transform the nation's ability to understand and treat traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress,” he said, calling these “the signature unseen wounds of the last decade of war.”
“My long-term goal is for the Department of Defense to be a game-changing innovator in this field,” he said. “Just as we helped foster the jet age, the space race and the Internet, I want us to break new ground in understanding the human mind."